What began as yet another ordinary student protest against an increase in university tuition fees has finally turned into a full-fledged political battle between the Liberal government (which, in this case, has the support of a majority of Quebeckers) and a coalition of radical students and left-wing activists, with the Parti Québécois discreetly fuelling the fire – although it stopped short of embracing the student leaders' most extravagant demands.
The student "strike" – a misnomer, since students aren't salaried workers and are just boycotting their courses to their own detriment – has been going on for two months. Protesters, sporting their trademark red cotton squares pinned to their shirts, have occasionally blocked bridges and the harbour, as well as access to financial institutions and government buildings, bringing some disruption to downtown Montreal. There have also been episodic scenes of vandalism, to which police have responded by spraying tear gas at the demonstrators.
Even though it's been the longest period of student unrest in Quebec history, the government hasn't budged – again, a first. A few loud demonstrations used to be enough to make governments shelve projects for raising tuition fees that were always among the lowest in Canada.
For years, Quebec university education has been offered at bargain prices. In constant dollars, today's students pay less to get a degree than in 1968 – and, sadly, the low tuition hasn't resulted in an increase in graduation rates, which, in Quebec, are still in the bottom range of Canadian universities.
The Charest government's proposal is quite reasonable. The projected hike would increase tuition by $325 annually over five years – not enough, certainly, to restrict access to students from disadvantaged families, since the province has a generous system of loans. Last week, the government offered substantial improvements to this system, but student leaders flatly rejected the offer without bothering to consult their members. (Although about a third of the student population is said to be participating in the boycott, this number is deceptive. The "strike" votes were often taken by a show of hands rather than secret ballot, and this in sparsely attended meetings.)
The government hoped the Easter holidays – and the prospect of losing a whole semester – would put a damper on the action, but the boycott movement took on new life last week, with quasi-daily demonstrations imaginatively designed to fuel the media's insatiable need for spectacular events.
The movement has been taken over by a radical faction known as CLASSE (for Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante). This group calls for totally free universities, even for foreign students. So, of course, there's no use in negotiating improvements to the loans system since, in CLASSE's dream world, there'd be no need for loans (even financial aid by parents or spouses shouldn't count).
How could Quebec afford such "free for all" universities? The student leaders' solution is wonderfully simple: Make the rich pay, reduce the salaries of university administrators, forbid universities from spending money on anything else other than teaching and research, and – better yet – change the system. CLASSE's media-savvy spokespeople recently declared that their movement was just the "avant-garde" of an anti-capitalist revolution. "It's more than a student strike; we want it to become a struggle of the people."
For now though, the "people" are just hoping their kids go back to class.